OFF-SEASON OF CHANGE
This is an article from the Sept. 7, 2015 issue
The Eagles' down months were nothing if not entertaining. Last January coach Chip Kelly wrested control over football-related decisions from GM Howie Roseman, giving Kelly the freedom to mold his roster. What he did with that freedom was jettison four Pro Bowl players—releasing linebacker Trent Cole and guard Evan Mathis and trading running back LeSean McCoy and quarterback Nick Foles—as well as letting his top receiver from 2014, Jeremy Maclin, walk in free agency.
In two NFL seasons Kelly has gained admirers, spawned imitators and led the Eagles to two 10--6 seasons, but doubters can—and will—point out that he has yet to win a postseason game. Of all his roster moves this off-season (nine starters from 2014 are now with other teams), it's the March quarterback swap with the Rams that will determine whether his Eagles play deeper into January anytime soon.
While the team has been calling it an open quarterback competition, Sam Bradford will be the starter, assuming he is healthy—a big assumption. The No. 1 pick in 2010 has completed a full 16-game schedule only twice, and over the previous two seasons he played a combined seven games after twice suffering ACL tears in his left knee. Even more of a cautionary note: In Bradford's 49 starts his record is 18-30-1 and his completion percentage is 58.6%, which is 32nd in the NFL over that period, below that of Jason Campbell, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Chad Henne. Still, the Chip Kelly Experience should boost those numbers. Last season Kelly's system helped Mark Sanchez—Bradford's likely backup—achieve career highs in almost every statistical category.
The Eagles' receiving core is thin, but it has talent. Last year second-round rookie Jordan Matthews, lining up primarily out of the slot, pulled in 67 receptions and 872 yards. This year he will be paired with 2015 first-rounder Nelson Agholor (USC), who was playing on the outside early in camp, allowing Matthews to stay inside. But, Matthews warned, "We're going to be able to do both. Coach likes versatile receivers."
The passing game will also get a boost from third-year tight end Zach Ertz. The only active ends who had more receiving yards through their first two NFL seasons are Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Antonio Gates and Jason Witten. While Ertz was only on the field for half the team's offensive snaps in 2014 because of his inconsistent blocking, he still ranked seventh at his position with nine receptions of 20-plus yards. In the off-season he worked on his blocking with Hudson Houck—the retired offensive line coach of the bruising 1990s Cowboys—and he trained in both boxing and MMA to improve leverage and hand fighting.
"I want to be an every-down tight end," Ertz says.
"I'm definitely not satisfied."
At running back Kelly replaced McCoy by signing the NFL's leading rusher of 2014, former Cowboy DeMarco Murray. There will be questions, however, about Murray's durability. His 436 carries (regular and postseason) were the seventh most in NFL history. The last two backs to have more carries, Terrell Davis and Jamal Anderson in 1998, didn't make it past their team's fourth game the following season before serious injury befell them. It will help that Murray is splitting carries with former Charger Ryan Mathews, another free-agent signee, and with Darren Sproles. In addition Kelly's program includes a sports-science regimen that is supposed to help prevent injuries—early in camp Kelly held Murray out of drills one day because his hydration level was low. And while Murray is no longer running behind the Cowboys' vaunted offensive line, the Eagles were actually graded as the best run-blocking unit in the league last season by Pro Football Focus.
The defense—oh, the poor Philadelphia defense, which has led the league in time spent on the field in each of Kelly's two seasons—was renovated too. Defensive backs Byron Maxwell and Walter Thurmond were signed to revamp a secondary that allowed 72 plays of 20-plus yards last year, worst in the NFL.
It was just another element of a stunning off-season, one that will either enhance Kelly's status as a savant or move him closer to being the coach who flew too close to the sun.
SI'S PREDICTION: 12--4
ANDY BENOIT ON THE EAGLES' PRIZED NEW CORNER
Coach Chip Kelly has little to do with Philadelphia's defense, but he knows that he wants it to be both aggressive and sophisticated. That's why he hired coordinator Billy Davis when he joined the Eagles in 2013. Davis's 3--4 scheme features an array of personnel packages and blitz designs, and to disguise his plans he'll move around any front-seven defender. But such an approach demands consistent man coverage from his outside corners. Last season left cornerback Bradley Fletcher was beaten repeatedly over the top and became every opposing quarterback's favorite player. With teams attacking that weak spot, Davis turned gun-shy with his play calls down the stretch. The Eagles lost their identity and, with it, three straight games in December. So it was no surprise this off-season when the Eagles shelled out $22 million guaranteed for Seahawks free agent Byron Maxwell (above). The fifth-year corner is a strong, long-armed press defender, as is second-round rookie Eric Rowe (Utah). With more size and strength on the perimeter, and with versatile athletes inside—including newly acquired linebacker Kiko Alonso—Philadelphia's D now has the personnel to dictate games.